Fifty years into its existence, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the party started by the late M.G. Ramachandran after being expelled from the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) in 1972, is the focus of national attention once again. A mass-based party led only by strong, charismatic leaders for most of its history, the AIADMK is still struggling to have a settled leadership, six years after the death of Jayalalithaa, who led the party to electoral victories in Tamil Nadu four times since 1991.
The present interim general secretary, Edappadi K. Palaniswami, who was Chief Minister from 2017 to 2021, appears to have consolidated his position as the party’s leader, but still faces a legally driven, but politically weak challenge to his dominance from O. Panneerselvam, who was also Chief Minister thrice — twice when Jayalalithaa faced legal hurdles and once after her demise.
It is no surprise that there was a leadership struggle after the death of MGR in 1987 and Jayalalithaa in 2016, as it is a party in which all power is concentrated in a supreme leader, with no second-rung leadership. An AIADMK leader famously said MGR was ‘number one’, and the rest of the party consisted of ‘zeroes’, implying that without the leader, the rest meant nothing. This trend continued during Jayalalithaa’s tenure as well. Its fortunes are linked to the individual heading it, and the organisation of millions of members and grassroots functionaries appear lost in the absence of a powerful and charismatic leader.
A political party may be defined as a group of people coming together for acquiring and exercising political power; or for procuring political gains for the group interests they espouse. In India, political parties are founded and built around both group interests and individual ambition. Some may espouse the interests of a regional, linguistic, religious, ethnic or caste identity, or the working class in general, but there are a few that solely focus on bringing one leader to power. For achieving this objective, the leader’s appeal has to be wide, if not universal.
MGR, whose political stint with the DMK was marked by a conscious effort to cultivate a do-gooder image in his films, had acquired cult status even before he chose to form a party of his own. The result was that the ADMK (the ‘All India’ was a later addition to the party’s name) emerged as a mass-based party. Its mass appeal was grounded in the promise to protect the vulnerable sections of society, across communities and castes. In effect, welfarism became its dominant, if not sole, principle; roping in and consolidating the support of all, without specifically appealing to any one section, was its political strategy. A combination of populist measures and promises of more such benefits has been the party’s electoral strategy, and in recent years, the distribution of cash for votes has been added to the mix.
In the initial days, MGR’s support base was spontaneous, as he drew large sections of DMK members and sympathisers, as well as the poor from all regions and communities. A significant section of traditional Congress supporters, including Dalits and peasants, became AIADMK adherents. Over time, this process led to the gradual fading away of national parties from the State’s political scene. One can say the AIADMK is a Dravidian party without having to demonstrate strict adherence to key Dravidian principles. It has remained ideology-lite.
As he had positioned himself as a challenger to the DMK, MGR’s politics was devoted to attacking his parent party and DMK leader M. Karunanidhi became his main political adversary. Anti-DMK sentiment remains a key motivation for AIADMK supporters to this day, and few worry about what their party’s policies and programmes should be as long as the DMK is defeated. This meant that the AIADMK can be a Dravidian party in name, without necessarily sharing all its key principles as its own. Thus, AIADMK functionaries rarely resorted to the anti-Centre and anti-Hindi rhetoric associated with regional politics in Tamil Nadu. MGR also departed from the tradition of rationalism by visiting temples as a devotee. The party contributed to the further assimilation of regional identity with the national mainstream, a process that had begun with DMK founder C.N. Annadurai, known as Anna, himself. Anna had formally dropped the separatist Dravida Nadu demand in 1962. He had also given up the strident anti-Hindu position of Dravidian reformist and ideologue Periyar E.V. Ramasamy by advocating a ‘one humanity, one god’ principle. MGR went the extra distance to be friendly with the Centre and the Congress. It was no surprise that the AIADMK became the first party to join the Union government, when two of its members joined the Charan Singh Cabinet in 1979. The AIADMK-Congress tie-up of 1984 was considered a ‘natural alliance’ by both parties then, though the DMK had also been in electoral alliance with Indira Gandhi’s Congress in 1971 and 1980.
Under Jayalalithaa, the Congress alliance continued, but at some point there was a rightward tilt in her approach. She once spoke of support for ‘kar sevaks’ during the Ayodhya temple movement, and when the time became ripe for it, in 1998, she became the first leader of a Dravidian party to have an electoral alliance with the BJP. The DMK had earlier joined hands with the Janata Party (of which the Jan Sangh was a merged entity) and was part of the National Front government that was supported by the BJP from outside. However, it was not until 1999, after Jayalalithaa had brought down the A.B. Vajpayee government, that the DMK crossed the Dravidian Rubicon by having an alliance with the BJP and being part of the NDA regime till 2003.
One feature of the AIADMK under Jayalalithaa was that she was so ideologically flexible that she wanted to occupy the entire political space — regional or nationalist — herself. Thus, she could speak up for State rights, question Central laws that encroach on State powers, and even demand that the Centre render military support to the LTTE on the one hand, even while cracking down on pro-LTTE elements in the State and claim that she would not allow any activity that undermined the country’s sovereignty on the other.
Coming to the present day, the AIADMK is clearly struggling to extricate itself from a sense of being beholden to the BJP. While Mr. Palaniswami is showing signs that he is eager to be independent of the influence of the ruling party at the Centre, without actually giving up his accommodative attitude towards it, his rival, Mr. Panneerselvam, is quite open about his obligation to the BJP. Voter wariness about the Hindutva party making inroads into the State was one of the factors in the DMK returning to power in 2021. It has also resulted in a revival of interest in the ‘Dravidian model’ of governance as well as a rise in regional pride. How long the AIADMK can hold out as a BJP acolyte is a question it will have to face before the next general election.